FK: You have been schooled in the art of forensic science but followed your love of photography. What caused this desire to approach a difficult field?
AD: Pursuing photography in a more committed way was a heart-driven decision. While working as a forensic scientist and enjoying the fascinating and demanding field, I felt that my creative spirit was diminishing. There was always a yearning to go some place far away for a while, get inspired and become a better photographer while being fully enmeshed in another culture. So this is what I did… I continue to work in science as an organic chemistry professor, but I have managed to create enough time to nurture my photography.
FK: You have traveled to various countries capturing the human spirit on camera. Can you tell us a little about these experiences?
AD: I have been very fortunate for my experiences—every day they seem surreal to me. My wanderlust started when I was a child, getting lost in the glossy pages of National Geographic. Some of its iconic images are forever imprinted on my mind. In 2007, I was finally able to see some of those far-flung places. I made a difficult choice to leave my career as a forensic biologist and embarked on a journey to Asia for nearly one year. I chose India because it was the country that had spoken to me for as long as I can remember.
Through research, I learned that there was a need for volunteers in the Tibetan exile communities. To better prepare myself for my volunteering, I decided to study Tibetan language with a monk living in New York City. The Office of Tibet gave me his home phone number and we arranged to meet in his temple—in his studio apartment. When I shared my plans with him, everything was serendipity. It was then that I knew that Khenpo Pema Wangdak would become my mentor and dear friend. I told him that I was a scientist and photographer looking to teach both topics to children. I had already begun to raise money from generous donors to buy digital cameras to use in the photography classes. He smiled and said, “look at these pictures, these are my students in India and Nepal…” In a few short months, with cameras in tow, I was on a plane to the Pema Ts’al schools and wouldn’t be coming back for months.
2007 was a life-changing year for me. I saw India from the Himalayan foothills of Dharamsala all the way down to the coconut-covered canals of Kerala. I visited sacred Buddhist temples in Sakya, Tibet and spent time living in a monastery in Pokhara, Nepal with young monks-in-training from the kingdom of Mustang. At the end my stay, we walked with the monks on a mountain trek for 10 days and over 100 miles on their yearly trip back home. Although in Nepal, this tiny, remote, medieval kingdom is purely Tibetan, and contains a lot of preserved Buddhist and Bon history, artifacts, and original frescoes painted on dirt walls inside temples. Although I was teaching English, biology, and photography to young promising Tibetans at Khenpo Wangdak’s schools, I felt that I was the student. Every day I learned something new about Tibet, it’s people, their struggle for freedom, and the intense history that the country had endured as a result of the Cultural Revolution. During this time, I was seeing things that I could never have imagined. I was so inspired while living in India, Nepal and Tibet, and as a result I made stunning images. When I came back, it inspired me to work on a documentary project about a Tibetan street vendor in Queens.
My next big international project started in 2009. I lived in Costa Rica for three months, learned Spanish and developed a close relationship with Roberval Almeida—a Brazilian biologist living in the Osa Peninsula. Through his work studying jaguar populations in the peninsula, he befriended many members of the community who were living off of the land—fishermen, gold miners, indigenous people, farmers and artisans. He learned about how the conservation movement was actually threatening the livelihoods of these people. He started the organization called Centrosocioambiental Osa to work closely with them, tell their stories, and approach the government to get protection and financial aid to support their cause. When I met him, we became fast friends and I began using my photography to document his work in these different communities. He too, has become my guide and cherished friend. I returned to Costa Rica again to collaborate with him on a portrait project called OSAGente. This series featured people of the Osa Peninsula. Roberval connected me to the people with whom he works closely and we arranged portrait sessions, organized an exhibition and then delivered the images to all of the subjects. It was really a beautiful project!
FK: Since 2008 you have been busy developing a portfolio of beautiful photography. In that same year you had a show at the Luther W. Brady Gallery in DC. What kind of work did you showcase there?
AD: I showcased images that I made while in Sakya, Tibet and Mustang, Nepal. I had the fortune of spending time in Sakya, which is the birthplace of the Sakyapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism to which Khenpo Wangdak belongs. This exhibition featured preserved ritual artifacts as well as photography. Many of the images that I exhibited showed the architecture of the Sakya Temple, which has remained very well-preserved, even after the devastation of the Cultural Revolution. During this horrible time, many temples were desecrated and burned, statues of Buddha were shot at and stolen.
FK: In 2009 there were a few highlights for you like the Focus exhibition in Manhattan with other photographers. Can you elaborate on the exhibit?
AD: In Focus, I showed a sampling of images that I made in India, Nepal and Tibet to highlight these fascinating cultures. It was also to share the Tibetan story. It was very eye opening for me to show the work to an audience outside of Asia. In New York, they were very inquisitive and through my photography, I was able to educate. It was then that I learned that my images were serving multiple purposes and had value—they were more than fine art pieces, but also anthropological, lending social awareness.
FK:In the same month you taught the art of photography to Tibetan refugees. That must have been exciting. Can you tell us about it?
AD: Yes, it was wonderful to teach photography again! I was approached by Lha Charitable Trust. It is a Tibetan grass roots social work and educational institution in Dharamsala, India, home of the Dalai Lama. Lha was awarded grant money from the International Campaign for Tibet to start a photography course. With the grant money, Lha purchased DSLR digital cameras and I taught digital photography to monks and lay people who had very recently escaped from Tibet. Every day, we’d do street photography in Dhasa, or Little Lhasa, as it’s called, due to the high population of Tibetans there. The students developed a cohesive body of work and it culminated in a curated student exhibition. It was a great opportunity for me because it strengthened my connection to the Tibetan community even more.
FK: In 2010 you made some other accomplishments like the project about the industrial zones in Brooklyn and the cross country trip. What did you gather from both of these projects?
AD: From both of these projects, I learned the importance of creating a solid body of work. I also learned that I am very drawn to barren landscapes—both natural and man-made.
Both projects are very dear to me. The industrial work in Greenpoint, Brooklyn was a series for which I'm very proud. I had always found an eerie beauty in those artificial landscapes. I captured them in a way that was almost fantastical. My choice to shoot in the late afternoon provided light that was so contrasty and rich. It made for a great series.
Interestingly, I think that it primed me for the journey to the American West. It sharpened my eye and honed my style. After all of the artifice, I craved unadulterated landscapes and I found them in the National Parks of South Dakota, California and Utah, among others. I communed with nature and was reborn in the sacred beauty of the land. On this trip, I started a series called Crossings that continues to grow as a long-term project.
FK:Can you bring us up to speed on what you have been up to since 2010?
AD: 2011-2012 were very fruitful years for me in photography.
Some of the highlights include:
I was selected for a juried exhibition called The Changing World with En Foco. In it, I showed a series of images called Man vs. Nature, which explore the impact that people have had on the planet. The images are aerial and demonstrate pollution, sprawl, and deforestation.
Images can be seen here: http://www.enfoco.org/index.php/photographers/photographer/domzalski_alison/
NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner commissioned me to work as a documentarian in the Forensic Biology Missing Persons Unit. Interestingly, I had previously worked there as a Criminalist in the Forensic Biology section. My friend and colleague, Sheila Dennis, had approached me to work on a special project funded by the National Institutes of Justice. It was a combined effort of photography, video and forensic science to produce documentaries detailing the work that the scientists perform with DNA, dental analysis, and physical anthropology to identify missing and unknown people.
I was commissioned by the Gallup Intertribal Indian Ceremonial in New Mexico as a photographer to document the pow wows, musical/dance performances and rodeo.
I had the privilege of traveling a great deal. I took another voyage to the American West in the winter to continue my Crossings series. As I mentioned earlier, I went to Costa Rica and made the OSAGente portrait series, which culminated in an exhibition in La Palma, Costa Rica. I took a backcountry camping trip to the Canadian Rockies and made work to add to my Crossings series. I visited the Chilean Patagonia and was captivated by the people as well as the rivers, mountains, glaciers and lakes. I made a lot of compelling work there, in both landscape and portrait form.
FK: What are looking to accomplish with your art? And what is the next step for Alison?
AD: What I really want to accomplish is to keep connecting with people through my art. I use my photography in many contexts, such as social, cultural and environmental, humanitarian, science, and educational. While I’m making the images, I am learning. When I’m showing the images, I’m sharing what I’ve learned and bringing it to the viewer. Now, I’m reaching a new stage in my creative life, which is: how do I arrive at inspiration? I used to hit the high road and go literal distances to get inspired. But now, after 12 years, I am finally appreciating New York City and what this marvelous microcosm has to offer.
Speaking of next steps, I have begun work on a portrait series about New York City. It’s a collaborative effort with photographer Eric Kaplan. It’s a very exciting and satisfying long-term project, we’ll see how it evolves…